“Positive” dog trainers throughout the Puget Sound can now celebrate a victory of science and learning over sensational TV.
Because Cesar Millan was coming to Seattle for Seattle Dog Winterfest, KOMO’s Problem Solvers began looking into the global controversy surrounding the methods used on the Dog Whisperer TV show. I was fortunate to able coordinate with the reporter and contribute to the story by providing details and Seattle-area contacts. They interviewed me, but my passion had me tongue-tied, so they didn’t end up airing it. Oh well…I have since thought of several quick sound bites!
Here’s a comment that I could have made, in response to the question of what I would say to Dog Whisperer fans: “Did you get a puppy to dominate, or did you get a puppy to love you? Dogs do whatever works. If your dog only gets his way for being polite, your dog’s inner Lassie will come out.”
Or maybe this: “Dominance is contagious. If you force your dog into submission, it may work for you in the moment, but stress may make her attack someone less pushy than you. Who wants to live in that war zone? In positive training, being polite is the only way the dogs get what they want. They work to win the Politeness Contest instead of the Dominance Contest.”
Of course, even those are too long for TV. I’ll get there someday on the sound bites. But that second bit is one of the reasons that the Dog Whisperer controversy continues. Dominance training turns the home into a group bent on dominance – it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
KOMO first talked with the American Humane Association, who said that they still agreed with their 2006 press release that the training methods on the Dog Whisperer show are outdated and inhumane.
KOMO 4 looked at the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior’s recent Position Statement saying that vets should never refer to trainers who rely on punishment and dominance-based training. KOMO also spoke with Professor Jim Ha from the University of Washington for the perspective from scientific research and got feedback from Brenda Barnette, the CEO of the Humane Society of Seattle/King County in Bellevue.
But best of all, they watched for themselves, as you can, to see what kinds of things are being done in the name of behavior modification and training. In case you think those techniques are necessary to rehabilitate aggression, THEY ARE NOT. Even “Red Zone” aggression cases, as he call them, can be rehabilitated without intimidation or dominance. Dogs do not need to be put in such extreme states of fear or arousal that they bite, growl, snarl, snap, etc. Putting a dog into a “Red Zone” makes for exciting TV, but flooding is not good dog training, and certainly not a technique that I’d hand to children via a G-rated TV show.
Even Cesar Millan admits, in his interview from Seattle, that this is not the only way. “It’s just my way,” he quips. It’s also the way of many other old-school trainers who worked before him, I might add, and they’re gradually getting replaced by people who keep up with science.
The very fact that there are other ways to handle all kinds of aggression means that these intimidation- and pain-based techniques are not necessary. It is what makes them inhumane.
Cesar Millan commented thats the American Humane Association’s statement that his techniques are outdated and inhumane is just “their opinion.” This is the organization that rates all television shows, the ones that make the standards for the statement, “no animals were harmed in the making of this film” that you see on most movies with animals. Their “Opinion” is important and weighed carefully by experts.
You can view the Seattle Problem Solvers segment by visiting the KOMO 4 news website.
(Those of you in Ahimsa dog training classes in Seattle will recognize the training center in some of the clips).
As a person that has taught hundreds of students force-free methods for handling dog aggression in my Growly Dog class, I like how KOMO wraps it up: “Don’t Try This at Home.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
It turns my stomach to watch him “train” dogs on the Dog Whisperer show, but I force myself to watch so that I know what misinformation people are being fed.
Dog Trainers and Behaviorists who use positive reinforcement or LIMA (least invasive, minimally aversive) techniques can clearly see that these traditional theories are very outdated. We rehabilitate dogs all the time without these techniques.
So why does this big controversy exist in dog training? It’s not because there are good dog trainers and evil dog trainers or trainers who love dogs and trainers who hate them.
One big reason there’s a rift in dog training is cognitive dissonance. If people who have been training for years using these methods wake up and realize that they have been causing unnecessary suffering all these years, they couldn’t sleep at night! Our beliefs do not lead to our actions. Our actions lead to our beliefs.
There are lots of crossover trainers, who used to train using force, choke chains, etc., but now use positive reinforcement. I admire the people who have made this switch and hope that Cesar Millan becomes one of them. Once he learns about modern dog training, he will truly be whispering.
Another reason is that people are unwilling to learn about the newer (last several decades or more) techniques. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Well, if your car gets 6 miles to a gallon, but still drives, would you say that’s broken? Probably not, but I’d still fix it!
But if dog trainers learned new techniques, they’d see they’ve been hurting dogs for no reason, and there comes our old friend cognitive dissonance.
Another reason that this rift exists is that people think punishment works on dogs, which isn’t supported by science.
The truth is that primates, including us, respond better to punishment than dogs do. We still learn better from positive reinforcement, mind you, so that’s the better way to train us all.
Dogs don’t understand punishment like we do. So if you train your dog primarily through punishment using pain or pressure, you have dog psychology backwards. In that case, you are trying to apply a human perspective, where punishment works fairly well. Don’t treat your dog like a furry person. Treat her like a dog, and train with positive reinforcement.
A final reason why people defend techniques used on the show so much is that some of the verbal parts of it are actually good. Many of the things he says about encouraging exercise, structure in the household, having rules and sticking to them, etc. are fine, though it can be hard for new puppy parents to sort out fact from fiction.
But it’s how those rules are enforced that boils my blood. So if you just listen to the show, rather than watch it, it’s not a terrible show. The problem is that those words and his friendly smile lull people into a calm submissive state (to quote Cesar), so anything he does is taken as a Good Thing, even if it’s putting dogs into a state of panic and then learned helplessness.
If you watch it with the sound off, you’ll see a lot of stressed-out dogs who eventually shut down and give up. The fear that caused the aggression is not gone. The dog just doesn’t have the energy or spirit left to defend itself. His “pack” is a study in Stockholm Syndrome, for dogs. (From Wikipedia: “Stockholm syndrome is a psychological response sometimes seen in abducted hostages, in which the hostage shows signs of loyalty to the hostage-taker, regardless of the danger or risk in which they have been placed.”)
Related articles on our site:
- Dog Whisperer Training Techniques Inhumane
- American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviorists Position Statement